Written by Jay Street (The Master's Seminary)
You’ve heard about those glorious stories of the martyrs, haven’t you? They were men of great faith—men who are looked back upon as heroes for the sake of Christ. Though history is full of these examples, some may wonder—what about genuine Christians who recant their faith? Is it possible that a true believer can do this? History does not disappoint us. The following gives us a story of such a man that is both convicting and refreshing.
Thomas Bilney was born in 1495, twenty two years before the spark of the Reformation. The world was already spinning from the Pre-Reformation seeds sown in many areas of Roman Catholic Europe. Still, the Roman Catholic Church sustained religious authority in nearly every realm. Bilney grew up in the midst of this Catholic world in England. He was a student from an early age and attended Trinity Hall in Cambridge and was invited to become a fellow there. It was here that he studied law, but a few courses in religion inspired him to pursue an education in “worthier” fields of study. While at school, he heard about Desiderius Erasmus’ elegant Latin translation of the New Testament. At first, he procured its linguistic eloquence, but it was only a moment of contemplation of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15 that afforded Bilney a new understanding of righteousness. In his own words, he wrote,
But at the last, I heard speak of Jesus, even then when the New Testament was first set forth by Erasmus; which when I understood to be eloquently done by him, being allured rather for the Latin than for the word of God … I bought it … and at the first reading (as I well remember) I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (Oh most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in his first Epistle to Timothy, and first chapter: “It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief and principal.” This one sentence through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that immediately I felt a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch, that my bruised bones leaped for joy.
Upon conversion, he did not fully break with the Catholic Church in England. Nevertheless, he began to become convinced of some fundamentally divergent views—particularly justification through faith alone.
During his early years of school and ministry, he developed a zeal for the gospel that propelled him in his personal interactions with others. Two significant individuals of English Protestant history were forever influenced by his passion and insights into Scripture—Hugh Latimer and Thomas Arthur. Arthur himself continued on with Bilney after collegiate studies to minister the gospel with him both vocally and practically in the lives of those who would welcome it. They traveled to see the sick and diseased in many English towns and cities. In fact, Bilney himself was known for consistently eating one scant meal for the day and then giving the rest to the poor whom he would visit.
Bilney’s demeanor was evidently gentle, but his preaching was bold. After becoming ordained to preach in Bishop West’s jurisdiction of Ely in 1519, he and Arthur began teaching against the haughty and bombastic behavior of the clergy in England. In fact, he was so bold in hostile situations that on two occasions his listeners physically removed him from his pulpit while he was still preaching.
Bilney was not undone by these circumstances. Most of the crowds who came to hear his teaching were significantly influenced by the truth of his words from Scripture. It was also during this time that Bilney joined hands with other men who were seeking reform in the English Catholic Church of that day. Included in the group were some well-known names to English Protestant history, such as Robert Barnes, Thomas Cranmer, John Frith, Hugh Latimer, Edward Fox, and Nicholas Shaxton. These motivated men met at the White Horse Inn on the campus of King’s College in Cambridge. Many of them were eventually martyred for their faith.
As for Bilney, his bold ideals came to head with his local church in 1527. His aversion to the presentation of religious icons was met with opposition after he and Thomas Arthur began preaching condemnation against St. Magnus Church for their new hanging crucifix on the church building. These two were swiftly arrested and tried for heresy by Cardinal Wolsey’s tribunal. According to history, Arthur recanted his behavior immediately and left Bilney to fend for himself. For three days Bilney endured before he surrendered to the solicitations of his friends and recanted much of what he had so firmly preached. In his trial, Wolsey urged him to regard Martin Luther as a “wicked and detestable heretic” and admit that he had not entertained his abominable teachings. Bilney obliged, and after spending a year in prison, he was released.
His year in custody was crushing to his spirit. After living in dank conditions under the weight of his guilt, it was said about him that food and drink did nothing to help him. Even his disciple and good friend, Hugh Latimer, said of him, “[His friends] were fain to be with him day and night, and to comfort him as they could: but no comfort would serve, and as for the comfortable places of Scripture, to bring them unto him, it was as though a man had run him through the heart with a sword.” How can such a person look favorably on the entirety of his life now? He had essentially dismantled all his labors in the gospel up to this point. How could he truly make amends for these treacherous acts against his Lord? Would he ever regain a reputation for godliness?
He would regain that sincere reputation, because his next daring move would put him into the English spotlight more than ever. He spent time repenting of his abjuration before continuing his next and possibly most impactful segment of his evangelistic endeavors. To prepare himself, he studied Scripture for two years. Then upon leaving Cambridge, he traveled to Norwich, where his greatest opponents dwelt, and began an outspoken confession of his sin of renunciation. His location of ministry and his lack of concern for self-protective measures demonstrate his desire to incite martyrdom once again, and thus somehow produce a fruit of genuine repentance.
It was not long, and he was captured by Bishop Nix’s officers in Norwich when he proceeded to give away a copy of Tyndale’s English Bible to a known individual there. But it was at this second trial that Bilney did not back down. Instead, he was condemned by the council as a “relapsed heretic” and sentenced to burning at the stake.
His final days in prison are inspiring. His good friend Matthew Parker recollects how Bilney maintained a happy disposition and was not averse to food. In a unique example that rings throughout Church history, Bilney provided an apt illustration of courage in the face of death. In preparation for his sentence to be burned, he scorched his finger in the candle’s flame and declared with a hearty assertion that though the flames should be hot, yet the heated purging of his soul from his body will reap for him unspeakable joys thereafter.
On November 10, 1531, he was sent to Lollard’s Pit, where many Protestant martyrs before him were killed. But even in death, he went confidently, and demonstrated once and for all that he did not hold his life dearer than he did his cherished faith in the gospel of Christ. While he was chained to the stake, a comrade, Dr. Warner, who witnessed his death, informed Bilney that he hoped to die with the same composure and robust frame of mind.
Such is the hope of many true Christians today. We all want to be able to say confidently that we will stand for Christ should a fateful day like that come upon us. But even so, such an example from Bilney brings its own encouragement that reminisces Peter’s denial of Christ—that though he stumbled, he did not completely fall. His faith was vibrant and too real to be ignored. Through weakness, he was strengthened by his Lord in repentance and he proved that Christians can find courage, even in times of immense weakness. As one author concluded of his life, “There was in Bilney the humility of a child, and yet the boldness of a lion.”
 C. B. Taylor, Memorials of the English Martyrs (London: The Religious Tract Society, [n.d.]), 66.
 Taylor, 73.
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